Conferences: the Mirror of Stark Reality

Nifty title. Decided to keep it. It is near meaningless. Conferences aren’t. They are very important no matter where you are in your writer’s path.

I went to my first writer’s conference in 2004 in Denver. The world of writing was very new. I had two books finished—one a novel, one a self help. I’d never met my fellow WARA members, but I had a new wardrobe that I felt comfortable wearing. I signed up for the conference on-line. I roomed with myself, knowing I’d need some solitude. The only thing familiar to me was the town. When I left rural southwest Kansas after graduating high school, I moved to Denver and for six years worked a couple of jobs in the downtown area as well as had fun in the mountains.

Oh, I planned for this conference. Every detail was studied in advance. I was going to soak up as much information as I could on this new thing—the writing and publishing world. How did other writers live with the other worlds in their heads? What was a POV? A Golden Heart winner? I even planned how to escape up into the pines for a while to breathe free of the crowd. My laptop was with me to fill in the hours after the main events and before I lay my head to finally sleep. I scanned every word on networking does and don’ts and decided to don’t. I read up on how to communicate with people in meaningful conversations. I know, not everyone has to do that, but I wanted to be my shiny best.

My special hair fixin’s were ready. My bags were packed. I climbed into the car and took off. My car broke down. But it didn’t matter. I’d left a day early. My intention was to relax, have a good time, absorb what I could and finally meet another writer—maybe lots of them. I had no illusions. I’m not that interesting. I was there to learn and observe.

Here’s what I discovered. I’ve never been with a greater bunch of people in my life. I was welcomed at every turn. People were so busy networking they thrust themselves forward at every opportunity and asked me if I’d like to do all manner of things. They asked what I wrote, I told them. I ventured a few questions and a couple of kind souls shook their heads in dismay and escorted me to a workshop that they said I needed. And later they checked up on me to see how it had gone. I found in one workshop that if you don’t put writing first in your life, right after your children, that you’re not likely to get enough written to be an author of importance—dusting, cleaning and other things are no longer necessities. I attended every workshop that I could fit into.

I learned that others were fearful, and that a kind word and offer of support to a new Golden Heart winner got me invited to the Golden Heart party with her and her daughter—an invitation I didn’t inveigle. An experience I wouldn’t want to trade. A memory I treasure.

I found out that offering help in something like getting the book signing room ready meant that, as in my experience, volunteers were adequate but supplies were lacking. I’d come prepared and brought supplies. We all used them happily and were able to be done in good time. No one will remember that as a good time probably but me. Later I sat between two wonderful people at that book signing and found that helping out can mean putting a badge back together by sewing it. And the author thought that was a skill? She teaches writing.

I saw acts of perseverance. One poor attendee had slipped getting off the plane and after a trip to the emergency room, wheeled herself around the conference. I witnessed an act of sincere aching generosity. One writer had been told by her husband just before she left for the conference that her writing was a money drain, bring home a contract or quit. She had a trace of damp eyes as we all gathered in one of the lunch lines. Not too civilized, I asked her how things were going. (A civilized person would have given her space and ignored her, not being intrusive). She’d been assigned an appointment with an editor that did not suit her story. Another person in line at lunch that day, offered to give up her editor spot for her. Insisting she take it when she demurred. I encouraged her to take it. I hope she did. Both giver and recipient were blessed that day, whether they did the switch or not, for their hearts were full and I was blessed to observe that generous act.

I saw two women coming down the escalator, the one behind shooting excited fingers at the person just in front of her. There was only the three of us in that golden moment of time. The excited one mouthed something. I didn’t know who the woman in front was or why the woman behind her was so excited. The woman in front with short hair had no idea anything was going on behind her. I gave a smile and a thumbs up sign in the spirit of the moment and both women smiled, the woman in front a small curve, the one behind a beam. Neither saw each other’s face. I found out who Nora Roberts was later when I saw her picture in a book.

Another time, I was sitting in a corner with coffee and saw a well-selling team totally miss some important appointments and their agent nearly pulling out her hair. They later came waltzing in, totally oblivious to their error and entirely dressed wrongly for being seen by anyone with a camera. Three things learned. Even the famous can goof up and after you get famous make sure you’re camera ready if your agent has a date with you to meet people. Embarrassing your agent is not a smooth business move.

I was hijacked in elevators and hallways to go to meals, both inside and out of the Adams Mark Hotel, with perfect strangers. They were fascinating people with different experiences in the writing world. All I had to do was listen. The world opened up before me.

My WARA members finally found me. Bless them all. They made sure I was ok and could find them if I needed them. I treasure those moments too. I left during the business meeting. There was some heat in RWA that year, and I remember that I didn’t have an opinion so that’s the time I escaped up 6th avenue and went to the piney woods in the mountains. I was gone all afternoon and when I came back was refreshed and ready for more.

My laptop was a casualty. It turns out that when shut down and in their case you still can’t treat them like luggage and toss them around. I talked myself hoarse and didn’t fully recover my voice for at least a week. But this is what I learned (besides craft things). I’ve never felt more at home with a group of people. Conferences are important, soul-saving important. Writers NEED to meet other writers. I feel so strongly about it that every year since I’ve donated to a writer’s group that gives money so that others can attend conference. I’ve been anonymous until this year. I haven’t been able to afford the time, nor the full expense to go, but I’ve helped others to go—that’s how strongly I feel it is necessary. Understanding. That is worth far more than anything else is. Support is wonderful. Families and friends can do that, but Understanding and finding understanding is indescribably comforting. That comfort sends tendrils down deep. My memories of that conference and the feeling of connection stay close to me like a worry stone in my pocket. There if I need it. I am not alone. Others of my kind are out there. I didn’t know I was a ‘kind’ until that conference.

So, what do you do for a conference? Prepare, relax, don’t force it, be ready with a helping hand, (supplies, tape, scissors, etc.) a smile, a pen, paper, a few cards to exchange, and a ready ear. Don’t worry over the clothing issue too much. Except the New York Professional crowd who appear to favor consistent black, you could meet people better dressed at a funeral or church. I expect it may be different depending upon the city, but I’ll bet not much. Those workshop rooms are generally well air-conditioned. Bring a sweater. Drink a lot of water. Don’t pitch a book to anyone in a place you wouldn’t accept a date in—the bathroom comes to mind. Above all, don’t worry. They’ll like you because they’re like you.


Reese Mobley said...

Nina, what a great post. You hit the nail on the head when it comes to conferences. It takes a lot of courage to put yourself out there. I remember that conference too, because it's where we finally met face to face. Good friends. Good times. That's what it's all about!

Becky A said...

Hi Nina,

Wow! I hadn't really given conferences much thought because I'm always on the run anyway. To me it sounded like one more "thing" that I didn't want to take time to do. Not to mention the fact that it takes some hard earned cash to get there. You opened my eyes to a whole new world of thought and made me see the value of going. So that means that some day, I'll have to jump in head first too.

And I'm so excited to know that as a writer I won't have to dust anymore. I've been trying to get out of that for years!!

I will beg to differ with you on one point. You said, "A civilized person would have given her space and ignored her, not being intrusive."

A civilized person would have done what you did, offering a listening ear and comfort in a time of need. Taking the risk of offending to extend their heart to another. The people that ignored her are the uncivilized poops!

I'm so glad you're not a poop!

Be blessed Miss Nina and thanks, Becky

Roxann Delaney said...

Fabulous post, Nina!! I remember that conference well. My next to oldest daughter was pregnant, and I got a call while in Denver that she was in the hospital with a kidney infection. She was fine and being well-cared for, so no big emergency.

My habit was to room with three other writers, one of which was often someone new. In Denver, we had an agent as a roommate. Another new experience!

I spent my first conference (Dallas 1996) with my mouth hanging open 99% of the time. I was so in awe of everyone and everything. I couldn't have been more thrilled when, after attending Susan Elizabeth Phillips' workshop, I found myself standing in line behind her at the kiosk to get something to drink. We talked about the outrageous price for a bottle of water. Me!! With SEP!! I met editors I didn't know were editors until months later. That first conference is an experience that can never be repeated. I'm so glad you had such a wonderful time at yours.

Ah, the memories of Conferences Past. Those are something to warm a heart on a cold winter night.

Roxann Delaney said...


You can always start with a smaller conference. I've attended a few of those and had a great time at each one. Check the RWR for a listing. They'll cost less, may be a bit less overwhelming, but the experience is postively grand!

Nina Sipes said...

I think any conference, retreat, you-name-it, will have similar value to a writer's soul in connecting in ways that others can't see. It probably is the same with a conference of plumbers or morticians. Meeting the WARA was pretty special to me too as well as attending the book signing there in Wichita and meeting even more of you. Anytime writers get together good stuff happens. Starla, brave soul, met with me in Dodge for breakfast one time while she was doing some research and traveling. She's the one who told me to dial back the intensity a bit. Good advice, too. It really helped at conference. Meeting with members at the Soup/salad place near the east mall was really wonderful for me. WARA writers--in one place with different styles and genres to talk about was a treat for me and my husband. Same warmth, same feeling of being suddenly with people that are easy to talk to. Meetings with other writers don't have to be at National to be significant.

Roxann Delaney said...

The smallest conference I attended was in Branson, MO in the late 90's. 50 attendees, and I'm not sure there was even that. I'd met Cait London/Logan in Dallas in '96 and had bought several books in one of her series, but I was missing one. Seeing her in Branson, I mentioned it and asked if she had any idea where I could get it. The next day she appeared with the missing book to give me. (She lives in the area.) I was thrilled.

I met Debra Dixon at Duel on the Delta conference in the spring of 1980. She mentioned she was a HUGE Wizard of Oz fan. I happened to have a lapel pin with the Wizard of Oz on it and gave it to her. Because of that and chatting with her and Jennifer Crusie at the book signing, she gave me a signed copy of her book and she now remembers me. :)

I doubt anyone outside of the writing world would believe it, but writers are some of the most generous people. They give time, books, friendship and a whole lot more. Maybe because it's such a solitary profession.

Penny Rader said...

I love, love, LOVE going to conferences! Meeting people, soaking up knowledge. Yup, I love conferences.

Thanks so much for sharing your experience, Nina. Great tips, too. Though I disagree that you aren't interesting. Quite the contrary. I wish I'd been able to attend that year.